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Dear Estelle. Thanks you for all the good information you provide to Villager readers. You can’t imagine how helpful it is when I pick up your monthly column. It all seems applicable to where we are with our college planning at the moment. Now we need advice on how to pay the bill as we await a response to Jim’s early decision application to a highly selective university. Jim understands it will be difficult to pay for an Ivy League education but if he’s accepted we will make it happen knowing the long-term benefits. Do you have any suggestions how to proceed? We are preparing to complete the FAFSA right after the new year. MRD, Parent, Cherry Creek High School

You have cause for concern regarding the cost of any college education, Ivy League or otherwise. As I’ve mentioned numerous times in my columns, the acceptance rates at the Ivies hovers around 10% or less. Merit aid at the highly selective colleges is minimal unless your son is hoping for Harvard. Beginning in the fall of 2012, if your family’s annual income is less than $65,000 you qualify for the “zero contribution threshold” and if your son is accepted there, he will attend tuition free. Because of their enormous endowment even families with higher incomes will receive some aid. Most colleges in the US don’t have those opportunities so planning how to pay  is very important.

While awaiting acceptance to college is a source of great angst to students and families at this moment, a review of the resources for financial aid is equally important. The primary funder is the family. Many families have been saving for years often since their child’s birth, to be able to fund their children’s college education. Grandparents have established 529 accounts and college funds. If your family has had the foresight and means, you can likely afford the college tab. Conversations about college costs and how the family can afford these costs should begin concurrently with college planning. Frank conversations early on will avoid the stress later when it’s discovered that ‘getting in’ was a challenge but paying for it may be well beyond a family’s resources. Many families assume that because their children have performed well in high school they will qualify for merit aid which will reduce their college tuition significantly. Don’t depend on it. Many colleges offer no merit aid. Those that do decide who will receive this aid based on several things: students who will be a great addition to their freshman class and exceptional students who exhibit great financial need. You are at the mercy of the institution. If your child falls between the top 10-20% of students applying at a particular school, your chances are greatly enhanced for receiving merit aid. Test scores are often a good indicator for those hoping for this type of aid.

After the family, the next sources of funding come from the federal and state governments. To qualify for this aid it is essential to complete the FAFSA, (Free Application for Federal Student Aid.) Financial aid doesn’t simply arrive on your doorstep. You must apply for it. The FAFSA is available online and should be completed immediately after the new year. It will determine your EFC (estimated family contribution) which translates to your eligibility for federal, state, and sometimes even institutional aid. This comes as loans, grants and work study and often exceeds $10,000. A family must reapply for this annually.

Many colleges, especially the privates, require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile which can be found on the College Board website. This form gleans information not readily available from the FAFSA.  Some colleges even require completion of their own forms. Be sure to check these to avoid missing out on additional aid that might be available for your student.

The last source of scholarships are various service organizations, businesses, and places of employment. Diligence is required to locate these possibilities and is worth the effort but don’t waste time applying for scholarships that are irrelevant to your student’s profile! Fastweb and FinAid are good web resources to utilize when tackling financial aid. Most high schools will post quality scholarships in their post-grad centers.

Above all, don’t be taken in by scholarship scams which promise access to thousands of dollars of free money!

With good planning and some luck, your student will be accepted to a college that values what he will bring to the school and will give you some money to make it affordable.

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